Archiving UPP Arts
In 2011, Annie Valk, Deputy Director of Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, invited me to co-teach a course entitled “Oral History and Community Memory” focused on Mashapaug Pond in Providence. I was interested in hearing and preserving the stories about this place as told by the people who had worked at Gorham and/or grown up by the pond. Working with an oral historian and students enabled the gathering of a far greater number of stories than UPP could have done alone. The collaboration with Annie led to an eight-year partnership between UPP Arts and the Public Humanities Center, and later Brown University’s Superfund Research Program as well. The students’ final project that first year was Reservoir of Memories, a pop-up museum for one night at a church/community center a half mile from the pond. Transcribed clips from the oral histories served as labels for objects the students had collected to visually bring the stories to life. In two subsequent semesters, students collected more oral histories creating a phonetour, an online tour and a site-specific sound installation. Over 60 oral histories, 26 research papers and other documents about Mashapaug Pond are now preserved in the Brown Digital Repository.
In the following post our organization is referred to by three different names - each reflecting a further expansion of our vision. We began as the Mashapaug Pond Project, then became the Urban Pond Procession, and finally, UPP Arts.
The popularity of the procession and my relationships with Providence City Arts for Youth and New Urban Arts, two key Providence after-school arts programs, attracted artists, local residents, and people wanting to address a local environmental problem.
In 2010, an influx of people, including teaching artists, gave the project new energy. In 2011, we established our first brain storming sessions for artists and trainings on Mashapaug’s history, and its environmental fragility. These workshops educated UPP Arts teaching artists working in schools and community centers. Each year, we focused on a particular theme, and created information packets with maps, oral history clips, pond ecology information, and online resources. In the early years, core volunteers assembled the materials; later, a Brown University student assistant, as well as expert local presenters on the area’s environment and history, contributed to the packets.
You can find documentation on all our arts-based education projects since 2011 on our website www.upparts.org, but I want to highlight a few key relationships and projects that developed and grew our impact. In this post I will focus on Lorén Spears and the Tomaquag Museum.
Through Our Eyes, An Indigenous View of Mashapaug Pond – Book project 2010-13
This project initiated a wonderful personal and organizational relationship with Lorén Spears, Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum, that continues today. I wanted the public to imagine what Mashapaug Pond looked like when Indigenous People lived near its shores, respect this history, and envision a healthy ecological relationship with Mashapaug today. In 2010, I contacted Lorén, and we laid out a plan to create a picture book by multiple generations of Narragansett people using a series of evening workshops with participants in the museum’s Health and Wellness program to generate images and stories. Since few books about Rhode Island sites are authored by Indigenous People, Lorén welcomed this project for herself and her community and I too looked forward to learning by working with Indigenous community members.
In the fall and winter months of 2010-11, I packed my car with collage and art supplies for the weekly workshop, and my contribution to our pot-luck supper, one of my favorite parts of the project. In addition to the workshops, the group visited Mashapaug Pond to acquaint themselves with the ancestral site, as well as photograph and learn about the poor environmental conditions of the pond today. Photographing at Arcadia Pond, a much healthier pond near the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, yielded collage materials as well.
The completed book is a collection of collages and writing that envisions what Mashapaug Pond might have been like when Narragansett ancestors lived on its shores, along with commentary about the pond today. The creative work is supplemented by two more factual essays. One is based on an interview with Narragansett elder Paula Dove Jennings; the second is a transcription of a presentation at the Tomaquag Museum given by anthropologist Dr. William Simmons, who grew up near Mashapaug Pond.
Elder Dawn Dove and I edited the material generated in the workshops over the summer and fall of 2011. Initially, I had envisioned sequencing the book from past to present, but Dawn saw clearly that it should be organized by season: moving from spring, to summer, to fall, and ending in winter. Setting my ego aside, I listened to her and followed her lead as we arranged and rearranged the images and text many times. I realized this sequencing enabled the voices of the past to merge with the present as a continuum, like the recurring seasons year after year, and like Narragansett culture being passed orally from generation to generation.
When I lead art classes or workshops, I see myself as a facilitator rather than teacher. I learn from listening to others, so leading workshops for me is an active process. I keep a personal journal as part of my practice as an artist, as well as a journal for workshops that I facilitate. After each session, I write down things I have learned and questions I have for the group and individuals. This helps me form plans for the next class and preserve new understandings and ideas.
Journal entries from the Indigenous book workshop:
November 20, 2010
Thinking about Loren’s comment that Native People like to “do,” and I was spending too much time talking, made me think about the traditional artwork many Narragansett do. It is mostly hand work – beading, quilting, weaving. That kind of making does allow for talking while doing, as Loren suggests. Most of the people who have come to the workshops have a good sense of the materials – pretty easily combining the fabrics, natural grasses, painted papers and photographs. The adults work easily alongside the children. It is different than when I worked with white middle class adults and children in Pawtuxet Village. There, the adults were not as comfortable with making. They admired the children’s work but felt intimidated doing their own.
March 23, 2011
I projected a photo of a snowy scene at Mashapaug Pond for the workshop participants to reflect on and write about. Wesley (age 18) and Lindsay (age 15) wrote quite intense responses. The second image was Dawn’s canoe collage. Sherente (age 7), who didn’t write much for the first image, kept writing after the others. Finally, he shared what he had written, including his family in the story. Ever since Dawn (elder) brought Pummukau (her grandson) into one of her stories last week, it opened the door for others to bring this two-year-old and other family members into their stories. Last week, the writing began with a list of words – smells, sounds, feelings, sights, and today their writing generated more developed stories. I have not read anything to the group. They are hearing each other’s writing and responding to images. As I write this, I realize it is somewhat like the passing along of stories that is part of their culture, but here it is sharing imaginative writing based on common history as told through story.
Through Our Eyes, An Indigenous View of Mashapaug Pond came out in spring 2013, and has been one of the best-selling books at the Tomaquag Museum. Lorén also received funding to distribute 20 copies to Rhode Island libraries, and she includes it in her teaching at the University of Rhode Island. Teachers at Brown University’s Public Humanities Program, Alvarez and Central High School in Providence, The Greene School in West Greenwich, RI and The Gordon School in East Providence have shared it with their students. Our place-based approach, with a consistent focus on Mashapaug Pond, facilitates a more concrete and meaningful understanding of Indigenous Culture, hopefully displacing the vague notions and stereotypes many of us have of this country’s Indigenous People.
Reflection written by Lorén after completion of the book:
The project was important to me as a Narragansett Educator because it empowered our people to have a voice through words and images. I am the Director of the Tomaquag Museum, and our mission is to educate the public and promote thoughtful dialogue regarding Indigenous history, culture, arts, and Mother Earth, and their connection to Native issues of today. This project tied it all together. Mashapaug Pond was the site of a historical village. … [The project] shows the impacts of the external communities on the pond and its ecosystem, and the native community that lived there. It shows our history over time.
In 2016, UPP Arts annual theme again focused on Indigenous Culture. This time, we had more material to draw from, primarily due to the research of Brown graduate Lucy Boltz about the displacement of the West Elmwood neighborhood where many generations of Narragansett and Wampanoag lived until 1962. Additionally, a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities enabled us to hire Lorén to oversee the programing content for the year, including educational guidance for non-native teaching artists, in-school and public workshops, as well as a Narragansett cultural voice in the 9th Annual Urban Pond Procession. This provided a consistency to the programing, furthered the mentoring relationship of Lorén to the organization and me, and enabled me to focus primarily on the administrative aspects of UPP Arts. This proved pivotal, as I decisively realized that my strengths and passion lay with studio work and engaging communities in public art-making in order to build stewardship, not with running an organization.
Holly Ewald is a visual artist who has blended studio work and community engagement for close to 40 years, bringing together interdisciplinary exploration and celebration of often neglected, and environmentally vulnerable places. She has been a Community Fellow at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage since 2014.